For McConnell, Health Care Failure Was a Map to Tax Success

For Mitch McConnell and fellow Senate Republicans, the push for a sweeping tax overhaul was never anything like the divisive internal party struggle that prevented repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

“All of my members, from Collins to Cruz, were just more comfortable with this issue,” Mr. McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and majority leader, said in an interview this weekend, referring to the centrist Susan Collins of Maine and the conservative Ted Cruz of Texas. “Everybody really wanted to get to yes. There was a widespread belief that this was just a good thing to do for the country and for us politically.”

Still, pulling off a victory in a contentious early Saturday morning vote took weeks of careful management of various unpredictable personalities — including President Trump and Senator John McCain of Arizona. It was a win that Democrats believe will come back to haunt Republicans because of the legislation’s emphasis on business and the affluent and its potential to explode the federal deficit.

Mr. McConnell said time would tell. “They are convinced it is good politics to be against it, and we believe it is good politics to do it,” he said. “We either get the growth rates or we don’t. In other words, one of these sides is going to be proven wrong.”

The failure to repeal the health care law provided Senate Republicans a valuable road map of what not to do when pursuing their ambitious tax agenda — particularly cutting colleagues out of the process. Mr. McConnell and a circle of lieutenants who sit on the finance and budget committees — Rob Portman of Ohio, Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, John Thune of South Dakota and Tim Scott of South Carolina — joined John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican, in relentlessly trying to educate senators and tamp down any rebellion.

“We had endless meetings getting everybody comfortable with the substance,” Mr. McConnell said. “That was a stark contrast with a lot of the meetings we had on health care.”

Some senators who would require attention were obvious from the health care debate, including Mr. McCain, Ms. Collins, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. And others, including Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona, had raised alarms early on about the deficit.

Mr. McConnell consulted regularly with Mr. Trump about the influence he could apply on wavering members or those he should steer clear of, as the case may be.

“We talked about it a lot,” Mr. McConnell said of his dealings with the president. “There were some members who were in doubt that he was helpful with and some he would not have been helpful with.”

Mr. Johnson, who complained that the bill shortchanged small businesses, was one who came in for added attention from Mr. Trump, who pointedly urged him by name during a private party meeting last Tuesday not to bring down the bill.

Mr. McCain was a special case, given his stature and because he had brought down the health care repeal with his complaints that the Senate hadn’t followed “regular order” in developing and debating the bill. His fellow Republicans took pains to keep him updated on the committee consideration and review of the bill and to make the case that a strong economy contributed to America’s strong posture internationally.

The potential holdout senators were able to wring out concessions as leaders scrambled to push the legislation to approval, an outcome Mr. McConnell attributed to their skillfully using their leverage. In the end, only one of them, Mr. Corker, peeled away for the final, 51-to-49 vote.

Mr. McConnell acknowledged that some Americans would see their taxes go up under the proposal and said it was impossible to do such a broad overhaul without someone paying more.

Despite projections the legislation could cost the government $1.5 trillion, he insisted it ultimately would not add to and might even shrink deficits because of the economic expansion he expects it to generate.

“We are pretty confident this is going to get the country up to a higher growth rate, which will improve wages because demand for employees will go up and improve the government revenues as well, which makes the deficit shrink,” he said.

Mr. McConnell expects negotiations between the House and the Senate to resolve differences between their two measures to move quickly and meet a goal of delivering a measure to the president by Christmas.

Getting the tax victory was important not only for struggling Republicans as a whole, but also for Mr. McConnell personally. He has been under fire from conservative activists for not delivering on the Trump agenda and had also faced questions about whether he could move beyond his well-known and well-earned reputation for blocking the Democratic legislative agenda and become a force for legislative success.

Mr. McConnell said the combination of the tax bill and his record of advancing conservative judicial nominees he sees as changing the federal courts for a generation should put those complaints to bed.

“It would be hard to argue that is not a year of significant accomplishment,” he said.

How the Republican plan resonates politically could depend on how quickly any benefits from the tax bill are realized, if there are broad benefits to be had.

Democrats held united against the legislation and are gearing up to attack it in the coming months as a reckless giveaway to the rich that was forced through along partisan lines and does little for the middle-class voters Mr. Trump promised would be the chief beneficiaries of his tenure.

If the predicted economic gains for businesses and individuals don’t materialize, Republicans could pay a steep price — a fact not lost on Mr. McConnell, who hopes to see hints of accelerated growth soon.

“Obviously, they hope none of this happens before November 2018,” Mr. McConnell said of Democrats. “And obviously, we hope the signs are there before that.”

“We would love for it to happen sooner rather than later,” Mr. McConnell said with a wry chuckle.

For Mr. McConnell and Republicans, the clock is ticking even as they close in on one of their long-sought achievements.

By CARL HULSE